No one doubts that the United States will ultimately sweep to a military victory in Iraq. But the failure of CentCom commanders to offer even a dose of candor about the unexpected problems encountered there has grouchy reporters grumbling about a credibility gap. The war has not played to CentCom's carefully rehearsed script. American and British forces were not initially greeted as liberators. CentCom officials said in recent days that the crowds have begun to help the American forces, but the southern city of Basra remains a dicey place where it's not clear who's in control.
Before the war began, the military had planned to airlift chosen television reporters to Basra on Day 2 to beam back pictures of Iraqi Shiites celebrating the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime. The reporters still haven't made it there.
When the initial developments did not create the images sought by CentCom, the spin doctors here took over. Franks finally spoke on Day 3, but the briefings contained little useful information. The "mosaic" that Franks and Brooks had said they would stitch together instead became a confused jumble of battlefield reports filed by embedded journalists in the field with little context from the providers of context. In the absence of information, reporters started interviewing each other. New York magazine media writer Michael Wolff–dressed mostly in black–changed his seat each day for maximum opportunity to ask questions and tweak the briefers. One of the generals tried to bond with Wolff by pointing out they both had bald pates, but Wolff was merciless when he asked Brooks on Day 8, "Why should we stay? What's the value to us for what we learn at this million-dollar press center?"
The succeeding briefings were not reassuring. Reporters had to act like Kremlinologists to divine what Franks meant Sunday when he attempted to defend his war plan. "The very best planning, I believe, military planning that can be done, is military planning that assures ultimate success but permits the possibility of early success," he said. It wasn't easy deciphering that oblique code, but what Franks seemed to be saying was that his blueprint relied on launching an attack with a smaller, lighter force to secure the lucrative oil fields and see if Iraqi resistance quickly faded. In case the "early success" didn't fully materialize, Franks and the military planners had prepared a contingency: a second wave of forces that would reinforce the invasion. Military officials could then argue that they didn't have to alter the plan because the planners always foresaw changes. "Its chief characteristic," Franks said of the plan, "is flexibility, adaptability." Many people would have considered this explanation–if Franks had offered it in plain English–to be reasonable, though some would have derided it as after-the-fact spin. But Franks failed in three appearances to explain his reasoning in an understandable way, preferring to rely on vague pronouncements such as, "This plan will be unlike any I believe anyone expects."
What was so stunning about the CentCom stage was the stark contrast with the generous access given to embedded reporters.....